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Toy Guns in Play Therapy

Toy Guns in Play TherapyI have a basket of miscellaneous toys on my shelf and the kids like to rummage through them. Most popular are the real cell phones even though they’re not smart phones. The kids really like the ones that slide out so they can “text”. There’s also a magic wand, some rubber balls and a toy gun. Toy guns in play therapy aren’t as controversial as, say, toy guns in preschool but they are still part of an ongoing discussion that play therapists have with each other.

We all agree that a fully stocked play therapy office needs to include some ways to be aggressive like rubber swords, dragon puppets, lion figurines or guns. Most of us are ok with guns and some of us are not. We have different ideas about what kinds of guns can be used (at the agency where I used to work we had Nerf-type guns that shot spongy “bullets”) and we have different rules about how they can be used (some therapists don’t allow kids to point a gun at the therapist and some do — my decision depends on context).

The gun I have looks an awful lot like the cowgirl cap gun my mom bought me from Sears to go with my red-with-white-fringes cowgirl Halloween costume. I think that was 1975 so this one is a little different — it has more plastic, less metal and it has the orange tip that they started adding to toys in 1992.

I chose this gun because it is so clearly a toy. It doesn’t look like a modern gun (it isn’t black, you have to cock it) and it doesn’t actually shoot anything. Lemme tell you, I got really tired of helping kids dig under chairs for those spongy yellow “bullets” so when I set up my own office I decided no Nerf-type guns.

Some kids are very excited when they find the toy gun. Other kids don’t care one way or the other. Very, very occasionally a child will tell me that he or she is not allowed to play with toy guns and ask me to remove it and of course I always respect this request and we talk about that.

My decision to allow toy guns in my play therapy office is indicative of my belief that kids should have a full vocabulary in the language of play. As a mother I struggled with gun play and it was something my friends and I discussed at length. We all fell on different sides of the decision — some of our kids had full arsenals and some weren’t even allowed to play with figurines that had guns attached to their tiny hands — but we all thought about it a lot. Other weapons like swords, knives, and bows and arrows didn’t cause us as much concern. I suppose there are vestiges of this struggle in my decision to use an anachronistic cowboy gun in my play therapy room. But I never considered not having a gun available to my clients.

Kids are smart. They get that the play therapy office is different then the rest of the world. They understand that the rules I have aren’t the same as the rules that  their parents or their teachers have. Children who aren’t allowed to use guns in the rest of their lives but who welcome the one in my basket are OK with leaving it there when they go. (Although they are usually super excited about showing it to their parents — sometimes they even run out to the waiting room with it when they find it!)

Some of the children I work with use the toy gun to work out feelings of helplessness or power by shooting my stuffed dragon or the picture of the guy doing a handstand on a horse that hangs above my couch. Some of them don’t use it at all but keep it near them while they work in the sand tray or color; having the gun nearby makes them feel safe.

Sometimes children shoot my Feelings poster (a grid of pictures featuring kids making faces to illustrate different emotions) often as an indicator of their own frustration at their inability to understand or name their own feelings.

Sometimes kids tell me who they would like to shoot or announce that they’re shooting someone while they aim into the middle distance. This can be upsetting for parents to witness but I liken it to an adult saying in my office, “I could kill my boss!” or “I wanted to throttle my brother-in-law!”

Often children just want to use the gun because they think it’s fun. This includes both the kids who can play with guns at home and those who aren’t allowed to. Some of them include it in their play because it’s part of a language that’s familiar to them. Others use it because it’s novel and they’re excited to explore. Many, many children glance at the gun, cock it and pull the trigger a couple of times and then put it back never to play with it again.

Frankly the cell phones are way more popular.

If you bring your child to see me and have concerns about the gun or any other toys I have in the playroom, I encourage you to bring it up.

Parenting for Now

parenting for the futureWe parent our kids to help them grow into the people we hope they can be. We parent them to be their best selves, to be the most resilient, to be successful (however we define it), to be loved and we make most of our decisions based on the future we want for them. That’s the point of parenting, right? To prepare our children for the future.

Well, kind of.

Even as we work to prepare our kids for their somedays, we also need to parent for today, right this very minute.

Many of the kids who come to see me have said things like, “In first grade they told me I needed this math for second grade and in second grade they told me I’d need this math for third grade and so on all the way up to high school, which they tell me is going to prepare me for college. But what about now? Can’t I just be in the now?”

In truth, now is all we have. We don’t know what will happen ten weeks, eight months or six years from now. We don’t know what the economy will look like or what the most in demand job skills will be or who our children will settle down with (if they settle down) or anything else. We are making our best guesses and we need to do that but we also need to remember that this moment is just as important. This moment, this interaction, it matters for its own sake and not for what it might owe to a future we can’t even see clearly.

Some of us are so future-focused that we start parenting from an urgency that makes our children’s simple mistakes or struggles seem overwhelmingly scary.

Sometimes when I’m working with a parent trying to help them understand why an issue feels so consuming — a child who sleeps through her alarm or who is struggling in his friendships — we follow the path all the way to a very specific fear. What if her inability to get up on her own will ruin her career because her boss won’t put up with her being late all of the time? What if his problems on the playground mean he’ll end up in an apartment with 43 stray cats and no one to call when he’s lonely?

Those often unspoken outsized fears can make it hard for us to allow room for developmentally appropriate bumps and bruises. If everything — future partners, future careers, future success and happiness — seems to depend on the SAT scores we may forget that there are other things to learn here, too. Things like preparing for big tests, dealing with pressure, confronting uncertainty, etc.

When parents allow their imaginations to run away with them — when they let themselves do it out loud instead of ignoring the fear so it sets up camp in their deep dark worries — then we can talk about it more realistically. Sometimes a slept-through alarm is just a slept-through alarm. Sometimes it is its own problem to be solved instead of a symptom of a greater issue.

And if there are greater issues at play, it makes more sense to focus on the moment as we contemplate our options than to let our fears take us down the road to hopelessness. Because this child, sleeping through her alarm, is just as important as the adult she will someday be.

There is not one way to be happy or successful. There isn’t one path to a really good life. We may get only one shot at a specific opportunity (winning the 5th grade spelling team or qualifying for the Olympics) but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other opportunities waiting for us.

It can be a tricky balance to both grow kids for the future and be here with the present child in front of us at the exact same time. But the dual perspective is necessary both for our child and for ourselves, so we don’t miss what’s happening right in front of us while we are looking out so far ahead.

Small Books, Small Toys

handprintsand-insideI just finished a kid’s book titled Return of the Twelves. It’s about a set of wooden soldiers once owned by Branwell Bronte and his sisters. The soldiers are alive and the little boy who finds them watches over them as one of their Genii (plural for genius).

When you’re a child small things are so appealing; this is why the sandtray is the most popular (and powerful) toy in my whole office. You can make a whole world in there and most of the kids take intense pride in how “real” they can make it look. The setting up — place each thing exactly where it ought to go next to the exact thing it should stand besides — is very nearly more fun than playing with it afterwards. Do you remember doing that? Setting your toys up and then gazing at them with satisfaction? Most of the kids who come to my office like to take pictures of their set up sandtray on their parents’ phone so they can take it home and share it with other family members. I usually take pictures, too, and make them part of my case notes.

Anyway, reading Return of the Twelve made me think about the other books like that and I came up with an incomplete list.

Which others do you remember?

If you want to know what it is to be a kid

My favorite illustrator for Ramona is Louis Darling, who drew this lovely portrait

My favorite illustrator for Ramona is Louis Darling, who drew this

Parenting is infinitely easier if you remember what it was like to be little yourself. If you can remember the frustrations, the fears and the satisfactions of childhood then you will know what it is that your child is experiencing now.

If your memory is foggy or if you had a childhood that doesn’t offer you much in the way of inspiration, you can always turn to Beverly Cleary.

I loved the books when I was a kid and I still love them today because when I read them I am immediately transported to what it is to be a child and to be afraid of ghostly gorillas who might be able to flatten themselves and squeeze through cracks in the walls. Or to feel like a cozy little bunny just by putting on flannel pajamas. Or to worry that my teacher doesn’t like me and to be too anxious about it to tell my mom.

Beverly Cleary takes children very seriously. Her books are funny but never poke fun. Her children are smart but not brilliant and special but absolutely ordinary. They are like the children we were then and the children our kids are today.

Sometimes I ask parents to read them and they actually do (often they don’t because they think I’m kidding — I’m not) and I promise you that they enjoy them. They also learn from them. They remember that being a kid isn’t easy and that sometimes what we don’t understand from an adult point of view makes perfect sense to a child.

I will leave you with an excerpt from Ramona the Brave. I have a lot of favorite scenes in the Ramona books and one of them is this description of Ramona’s game, Brick Factory, that she plays with Howie, the boy down the street. I think it’s such a wonderful and accurate portrayal of child’s play, of how it’s essential and true, how it serves a purpose for the children not recognized by older kids or adults, the concentration and the work of it. Next time you’re asking your child for the third time that night to put down her Legos and come to dinner, think about this passage and remember how very serious and how very absorbing the work of play is for kids. Your understanding won’t make her come to dinner any faster but it might make you a little less frustrated.

Ramona ran out to meet Howie, who was trudging down Klickitat Street pulling his little red wagon full of old bricks, the very best kind for playing Brick Factory, because they were old and broken with the corners crumbled away. “Where did you get them?” asked Ramona, who knew how scarce old bricks were in their neighborhood.

“At my grandmother’s,” said Howie. “A bulldozer was smashing some old houses so somebody could build a shopping center, and the man told me I could pick up the broken bricks.”

“Let’s get started,” said Ramona, running to the garage and returning with two big rocks she and Howie used in playing Brick Factory, a simple but satisfying game. Each grasped a rock in both hands and with it pounded a brick into pieces and the pieces into smithereens. The pounding was hard, tiring work. Pow! Pow! Pow! Then they reduced the smithereens to dust. Crunch, crunch, crunch. They were no longer six-year-olds. They were the strongest people in the world. They were giants.

When the driveway was thick with red dust, Ramona dragged out the hose and pretended that a terrible flood was washing away the Brick Factory in a stream of red mud. “Run, Howie! Run before it gets you!” screamed Ramona. She was mighty Ramona, brave and strong. Howie’s sneakers left red footprints, but he did not really run away. He only ran to the next driveway and back. Then the two began the game all over again. Howie’s short blond hair turned rusty red. Ramona’s brown hair only looked dingy.

Ramona as hipster. Well, she is growing up in Portland.

Ramona as a hipster. Well, she is growing up in Portland.

Ramona, who was usually impatient with Howie because he always took his time and refused to get excited, found him an excellent Brick Factory player. He was strong, and his pounding was hard and steady. They met each day on the Quimby’s driveway to play their game. Their arms and shoulders ached. They had Band-Aids on their blisters, but they pounded on.

Mrs. Quimby decided that when Ramona was playing Brick Factory she was staying out of trouble. However, she did ask several times why the game could not be played on Howie’s driveway once in a while. Howie always explained that his mother had a headache or that his little sister Willa Jean was taking a nap.

“That is the dumbest game in the world,” said [big sister] Beezus, who spent her time playing jacks with Mary Jane when she was not reading. “Why do you call your game Brick Factory? You aren’t making bricks. You’re wrecking them.”

“We just do,” said Ramona, who left rusty footprints on the kitchen floor, rusty fingerprints on the doors, and rusty streaks in the bathtub. Picky-picky spent a lot of time washing brick dust off his paws. Mrs. Quimby had to wash separate loads of Ramona’s clothes in the washing machine to prevent them from staining the rest of the laundry.

Who made you the center of the universe?

This artist, Laura Mvula, is my new iTunes obsession. I discovered her thanks to Son of Baldwin and I’ve kept her on high rotation. I’m putting the lyrics below the video but it’s a song about self-acceptance in the face of tired and limited standards of beauty:

“That’s Alright”

I will never be what you want
And that’s alright
Got my skin and light
And my body ain’t tight
And that’s alright
But if I might
I’ma stand and fight

I will never be what you want
And that’s alright
I’ll play my own damn tune
I’ll shine like the moon
And very soon
I’ll soon fly over you
And what you gonna do
When I fly over you

And who made you the center of the universe
Who made you the center of the universe

And every morning when I wake up I pray for you
And then I pray for me
That soon you’ll see
How love can be
Our love will set you free
What’s it gonna be
See the beauty in your eyes

And who made you the center of the universe
(Who made you judge and jury over me)
Who made you the center of the universe
(Now leave me be)
Who made you the center of the universe
(Don’t need no rules in my world)
Who made you the center of the universe

I will never be what you want
And that’s alright
Got my skin and light
And my body ain’t tight

I will never be what you want
And that’s alright
Got my skin and light
And that’s alright

And who made you the center of the universe
(Who made you judge and jury over me)
Who made you the center of the universe
(Now leave me be)
Who made you the center of the universe
(Don’t need no rules in my world)
Who made you the center of the universe

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